Laudato Si, lulling the left into a winning prolife strategy

June 22, 2015

With Laudato Si, there is no longer any doubt. Catholics are the official enemies of Alberta's oil sands and the use of fossil fuels everywhere. Environmentalism is now a Catholic thing. As progressive Vatican journalist John Allen Jr. puts it:
Laudato Si seems destined to go down as a major turning point, the moment when environmentalism claimed pride of place on a par with the dignity of human life and economic justice as a cornerstone of Catholic social teaching. It also immediately makes the Catholic Church arguably the leading moral voice in the press to combat global warming and the consequences of climate change.
The Church has been globally warming to climate change

Many Catholics may feel like they were just whacked in the head with a bio-degradable frisbee thrown by Pope Francis out of nowhere, but Allen's fascinating article argues that Laudato Si the pinnacle of a "growing eco-streak" in the Church.

Consider that:
  • On a few occasions, St. John Paul II called people to "ecological conversion" 
  • Pope Benedict XVI agreed to make the Vatican the first "carbon neutral" state in Europe. As such, the Vatican bought a "climate forest" in Hungary to offset its annual CO2 emissions. (Pope Francis has cooled towards carbon offsets, however, and condemns them in Laudato Si
  • BXVI also installed a giant battery with over 1000 solar panels on a Vatican rooftop. 
  • "In 2000...the Catholic bishops of the Pacific Northwest in the United States and Canada issued a pastoral letter arguing for conservation of the Columbia River Watershed."
  • "Protecting the Amazon rainforest from destruction has become virtually a national crusade for the Catholic Church in Brazil."
What's more, Cardinal Bergoglio has used his 'green pen' before. In 2009 he co-authored the "Aparecida Document", which George Weigel calls the "master plan for the New Evangelization in Latin America". This document, Allen tells us, included a whole section on the environment, and "embraced the view that global warming and climactic shifts are the result of human activity".

How to Laudato-Si your own home

So let's skip right to the practical application. How are good Catholics to get on the big green bandwagon? Laudato Si offers some tips for individuals:
  • "A person who could afford to spend and consume more but regularly uses less heating and wears warmer clothes, shows the kind of convictions and attitudes which help to protect the environment." (211)
  • "avoiding the use of plastic and paper, reducing water consumption, separating refuse, cooking only what can reasonably be consumed, showing care for other living beings, using public transport or car-pooling, planting trees, turning off unnecessary lights" (211)
  • "Reusing something instead of immediately discarding it, when done for the right reasons, can be an act of love which expresses our own dignity." (211)
  • Bonus points for ditching your air conditioning (55). 
Laudate Si also puts a whole new spin on home renovations. As discussed next, Catholics are clearly being challenged to include recycled and ecological materials in their plans.

Greening Catholic Parishes

Parishes should naturally strive to be good examples of ecological stewardship, which means becoming the 'green leaders' of their communities. But green paint won't do the trick (that would only satisfy the Irish). So what is really involved?

To help parishes along, Allen presents a list of role-model parishes on the cutting edge of ecological coolness. First on the list is a Minnesota parish that built a new parish centre under the guidance of an "eco-spirituality committee" whose purpose was "to 'raise awareness and change behavior in all relations with the earth, its creatures and each other'". Allen writes: 
As a result, the new parish center reused or recycled 80 percent of the materials from the old structure. Builders used wood products from sustainable forests, cork flooring from oak tree bark, office chairs made from recycled milk jugs, rubber stairways made from recycled tires, and windowsills made from soybeans, junk mail, and recycled newspapers.
Land surrounding the center has been landscaped with expanded green space, native and drought-resistant plants that require less water, vegetation to encourage wildlife, strategic shading to reduce energy consumption, and salvaged trees.
But no change is ever enough. Just look at the reaction to Laudato Si by the folks over at the proudly cafeteria-catholic National Catholic Reporter. Heaven clearly rained organic manna on these long-suffering Church dissidents when Laudato Si rolled off the press. Still, they hardly took time off their beat to do a 'mother earth' liturgical dance for joy. Three seconds later, they are already hammering Pope Francis for being all words and no action.

NCR Reporter Ken Briggs demands an apology from the Church for being a worldwide climate-killer "and a profiteer in the building of the fossil fuel empire". And what about that $8-billion Vatican bank account, he says, some of which is "tied up in global oil"? It's time to divest of that dance with the oil devil, Pope Francis. 

My first reaction: crank up that A/C

If you want to remember the 'good old days' without air conditioning, just think back to earlier this year, when over 1000 people died in an extreme heat wave in India. Just think of how many lives could have been saved with access to air conditioning.

Here in Ontario, the summer heat often turns our house into an unbearably muggy and stifling greenhouse, and A/C allows us to breathe again. I plan to use this wonderful invention as much as needed, guilt-free.

So am I now dissenting from Catholic teaching? Am I in need of lessons from the NPR on how to conduct myself as a cafeteria Catholic? A certain Michael Sean Winters would gleefully offer such hard-won lessons from personal experience, it seems:
There is something a little endearing about watching some conservative Catholics wrestle with the fact that they are dissenting from papal teaching. They are a bit clumsy at it. Perhaps, here at NCR, we could offer a symposium or something. What has become abundantly clear in the last twenty-four hours is that these conservatives are dissenting, and not just from one item in a long papal document, but from the very foundations of Catholic Social Teaching.
Wow, very serious indeed. Is climate change now a foundational Catholic Social Teaching? Am I being a hypocrite if I laugh at global warming but cry at abortions?

Though I do wonder why the Vatican is not crying more at abortions. Or shouting, for that matter.

Here's what concerns me. On May 10, there was a March for Life in Rome. 40,000 people showed up to march. To Americans this might seem small, but to me this number is huge: this is almost twice as many attendants as the Canadian March for Life!

The March started from St. Peter's Square, but the Pope was not directly involved in any way. He did have a chance to speak to the marchers during his usual noon appearance in the square, but he spent all of one sentence on the March before turning his remarks to Mothers' Day. Even that sentence he got wrong; he assumed the March had already happened, but it was set to start at 2 p.m.

Secular Italian newspapers were mostly silent on the March for Life. But surely, the Vatican's newspaper spread the good news far and wide? Not so much:
L’Osservatore Romano, ran a story in its May 11-12 edition, on page 5 of an 8-page issue, but under the headline “An applause for mothers.” A photograph accompanying it showed a dense crowd with the banner “Marcia Nazionale per la Vita.” Such scant coverage, for a march estimated at 40,000—far larger than the frequent Italian labor protests that always seem to make the front pages—was disappointing indeed.
Maybe Pope Francis, and all his staff, were too busy that week working on Laudato Si.

Second reaction: is the Pope a mad genius?

Just as I was about to throw my first copy of Laudato Si into the trash can paper recycling bin, I felt compelled to re-read the section entitled "Ecological Education and Spirituality." Here is what drew me in:
203. Since the market tends to promote extreme consumerism in an effort to sell its products, people can easily get caught up in a whirlwind of needless buying and spending.
True, isn't it? The next sentence in the encyclical gives this whirlwind a name: "compulsive consumerism." Sounds a bit like being an alcoholic. And then the encyclical says that a certain "Romano Guardini" foresaw all this with his theory of the "mass man".

I looked up Romano Guardini, and he turns out to have been only one of the most important Catholic thinkers of the last century, and apparently a strong influence for Pope Benedict. I wasn't able to find a clear "normal language" explanation of his "mass man", but it seems that this is a term for the generic consumer caught up in the whirlwind who, as the encyclical says, "is convinced that his conformity is both reasonable and just”.

The encyclical continues:
This paradigm leads people to believe that they are free as long as they have the supposed freedom to consume. But those really free are the minority who wield economic and financial power. Amid this confusion, postmodern humanity has not yet achieved a new self-awareness capable of offering guidance and direction, and this lack of identity is a source of anxiety. We have too many means and only a few insubstantial ends.
It sounds like the Pope is saying that we are stuck in an endless cycle of shopping and discarding, but most of what we buy is not worth our time. Still we have come to believe that this is what real freedom means. We are constantly chasing the 'latest and greatest,' and we don't even know that we are wasting our time. And then:
204. The current global situation engenders a feeling of instability and uncertainty, which in turn becomes “a seedbed for collective selfishness”.[145] When people become self-centred and self-enclosed, their greed increases. The emptier a person’s heart is, the more he or she needs things to buy, own and consume. It becomes almost impossible to accept the limits imposed by reality. In this horizon, a genuine sense of the common good also disappears. As these attitudes become more widespread, social norms are respected only to the extent that they do not clash with personal needs.
This is where it gets even more interesting. Reading this over, I find myself completely agreeing. In fact, #204 is a succinct and brilliant analysis of a major problem in our society, a problem that manifests itself in all different areas of life.

Just look at our collective attitude towards human life today. We have thoroughly commercialized unborn people and turned them into products for our consumption (or discarding). With the use of reproductive technologies, we buy and sell unborn human beings, and we manufacture them in the lab and through surrogacy. Abortion too is the epitome of a highly selfish and consumerist attitude towards human persons.

Even with regard to same-sex marriage, I see the same consumerist attitude in action. We are so caught up in the self-centred greed of "the customer is always right," that we refuse to accept, like the encyclical says, "the limits imposed by reality." We have become so focused on our own wants that we have lost our understanding of the common good. We believe that if we have the spending power, then we also have the right to reshape reality to fit our own desires.

And then, there is the giant global monster of pornography, a multi-billion dollar industry which holds huge numbers of addicted "consumers" in its jaws. What else is pornography but a consumerist exploitation of other persons, who have been turned into products for our use and pleasure? Our selfish consumerism has caused us to throw the human dignity of other people into the garbage. In the process, we have enslaved ourselves to that garbage.

And so I wonder: if the Pope convinces people to snap out of their consumerist mindset for the sake of the environment, could this also lead to a greater respect for the natural law in general? Could this change in attitude lead to greater respect for unborn human life, for natural limits upon human reproduction, and for the natural family?

Maybe this left-field tactic is exactly what is needed, because it bores down to the core of the matter. Maybe, just maybe, this could be the narrow path back to sanity for modern human beings. If we open ourselves up to concern for others, if we take a step away from our consumerist attitude, then suddenly, we may no longer see it as our "right" to kill babies.

On that note, the encyclical continues:
205. Yet all is not lost. Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start, despite their mental and social conditioning. We are able to take an honest look at ourselves, to acknowledge our deep dissatisfaction, and to embark on new paths to authentic freedom. No system can completely suppress our openness to what is good, true and beautiful, or our God-given ability to respond to his grace at work deep in our hearts. I appeal to everyone throughout the world not to forget this dignity which is ours. No one has the right to take it from us.  ...
208. We are always capable of going out of ourselves towards the other. Unless we do this, other creatures will not be recognized for their true worth; we are unconcerned about caring for things for the sake of others; we fail to set limits on ourselves in order to avoid the suffering of others or the deterioration of our surroundings. Disinterested concern for others, and the rejection of every form of self-centeredness and self-absorption, are essential if we truly wish to care for our brothers and sisters and for the natural environment. These attitudes also attune us to the moral imperative of assessing the impact of our every action and personal decision on the world around us. If we can overcome individualism, we will truly be able to develop a different lifestyle and bring about significant changes in society.
Is it possible to compartmentalize unselfishness? If the Pope succeeds in the herculean task of convincing people to become less consumerist and self-absorbed, could the benefits of that shift in attitude remain only in the area of environmentalism? Will people chain themselves to trees and rescue trapped polar bears, but still line up at Planned Parenthood for abortions?

It's possible. In fact, we see liberals doing exactly that today.

But maybe this strategy has not been tried to its fullest. Maybe, if people get "crunchy" enough to recycle paper products by choice, then they will also start to be ecological in their attitude towards other human beings. And being ecological means: not treating other human beings as products.

Laudato Si could yet turn out to be the secret weapon that wins the war.

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We provide commentary on the cultural decline of the Western world, from a conservative perspective.